What does it take to compose a life?
An egg, some sperm, a uterus for holding.
What does it take to compose a life?
The longing for human skin.
The nostalgia for painting.
A sensing of darkness.
What did it take to compose Sophie?
The exploration to camouflage contemporary art in history, and history in contemporary art.
The obsessive idea that memory might be just synthetic storytelling.
A story that desired to unfold through somebody else’s work.
Endless studio hours.
What does it take to bring Sophie’s legacy out?
A virus of passion and compassion, people with open minds.
Behind the scene:
Never before had one of my projects developed from “closer to the heart than the head”.
In fall 2009, I found myself pondering about how loss is the bone-deep hitting measurement for feeling love. At that time, I didn’t know Jeannette Winterson’s amazing quote “Why is the measure of love loss?”
Starting on my personal story, I began to investigate deeper into “female relationships” in the realm of “the studio”. It did not take long until I was visited by fantasies of images of interlaced female bodies which were nurtured by forms, patterns and textures lent from nature, from buds and blossoms of flowers, from spiral forms of shells and meandering shapes of rivers and creeks.
I felt the longing to paint. An almost embarrassing feeling, because I lack any training, any experience with it. I had never painted, neither in oil or acrylic, and if I did watercolours in my sketchbooks, my laziness led me often to the use of wine and blood as washes instead of reaching into the paintbox. ...So I signed up for a course in oil-fundamentals. I went to four out of the eight sessions, and took it from there… But in truth, that is wrongly reported, what happened can rather be described as: “it” took me from there.
While delving into the realm of mixing paint, exploring different natural ingredients such as ground dried flower petals, dead ladybugs, minerals… it so happened that when I finally put paint on found shelf-boards and other salvaged wood, my hands started to paint almost on their own. It was the strangest feeling, as if somebody else were leading my hands. Not my body, not my mind. The results looked to me like a mixture of folk-art, art brut and art deco iconography, infused by symbolism and orientalism. I felt very embarrassed, as I could not reference these things in my upbringing, my education or my artistic aspirations before. It felt freeing to do this, amazingly energizing and exhausting at the same time. It felt, as if I was a tool for something else, not the master of my studio practice.
Sophie La Rosière:
What had been a loose idea became more and more serious and urgent: the inner image of a woman “who would have done that”. Parallel to my studio work, I imagined her, and soon wanted to give her a name, a biography, a story, an inner emotional state of being, a calling, a trauma, a reason for her work…
I needed her to be “close to my culture”, but “more romantic’, more sensual, more colourful than most German female artists of that era that I knew about.
I needed her to be passionate - more than I would ever dare to be. I needed her “so driven” that she would emancipate in her work quickly, that she would overcome prejudice and moral fears. I needed her to be of an imaginative nature, so much so that she would create her own world in her small house that she transformed into a studio. I needed her as reckless as I am when it comes to using materials laying around to be useful in the studio: making mason jars into pigment-storage containers, bedsheets into paint tarps, pots and pans into wax-melting vats… but mostlyby dismantling her house bit by bit in order to get the painting-boards she could use instead of buying canvasses. And I came up with the naïve and clichéd idea of her being French. French and having lived a about a century earlier than me.
Without knowing the concrete meaning of a “Rosière”, I also wanted to link her to a flower. I had this image of unfolding buds observed by her in nature. Her discovering her own female organs and that of her girlfriends in a way that was not solely linked to fertility, but more revolving around sensual, erotic, lesbian sexuality.
Research and site visits:
As soon as I started giving my character more flesh, I knew I was caught up in clichés, and that I would need to engage into a deep level of research. I talked with Catherine Sicot, who comes from Rennes, France, and who had lived and worked in Paris for a decade. She had just started her art consulting company, Elegoa. She understood, as a cultural entrepreneur, how to facilitate the kind of work that I was attempting to undertake.
Catherine caught fire, and soon we would make a plan of action regarding research, project-planning and on-site visits in Paris and surroundings.
Reflection on concept: or how is this project related and how is it different to my other projects?
One thing easily said is that Sophie la Rosière has taken up more than five years of my life - longer than all other characters I worked with before, with one exception: Joseph Wagenbach.
The Sophie La Rosière Project builds on my former complex, site-specific hyper-realistic immersive installations. However, in dialogue with the people who accompanied its development over the years, mainly Catherine, some natural and logical shifts took place: our research became more focused and our ideas for presentation opened up to include a new medium, video.
We conducted video-interviews and I filmed walk-throughs in evocative, real historic places that would allow a blending of reality and fiction. This aspect refers to the art of documentary more than anything ever did in my former works.
This documentary-like style allows something I embrace: the “giving flesh” to a fictitious character by participants other than “the artist”. There is very freeing element in this. Something that allows me as the artist to let the character “grow up”, a very enriching experience of receiving content-contributions from partners, experts, team-members and everybody who was engaged during this journey of creation and production.
While the Sophie La Rosière Project started in the residential, secluded space of a thousand square-foot studio, it now spans two continents, many generations and the brainstorming and contributions of countless generous minds.
Art Historical References:
Creating a character who lived earlier than myself; who didn’t have access to the internet, but only to academic research available at her time and who was further defined by her upbringing and education, provides the freedom of creating that I need for my studio-work and concept-development. However, I am a contemporary artist of the twenty-first century. I am consciously standing on the shoulders of uncountable artists, and want to name some of them here those whose work accompanied me over the last years of this project and whom I think of with gratitude, respect and admiration.
- Gustave Courbet (1819-1877): for his pioneering works in painting, showing women in unambiguous scenes, and depicting female genitals realistically, e.g. in his painting “L’Origine du Monde” (1866), a work that would undergo a 122 year journey before shown to the public first time in 1988 in New York City.
- Jean Jacques Henner (1829-1905): not only for his intriguing use of sfumato in his paintings, but also for his action as one of the first artists to open up his studio to women at the end of the 19th century in Paris.
- Madeleine Smith (1864- 1940): a student of J.J. Henner whom I came across during my research in France. The discovery of her and her sister’s life and legacies became the main source of historical interweaving of my fictitious story with the Smith sister’s real historic life.
- Jeanne Smith (1857-1943): Madeleine’s older sister, a woman who chose photography for her artistic endeavours, but halted later, for no reason that could be found in the family-archives. She was at times the lover of a German-Swiss painter, Ottilie Roederstein. All the photographs I ever saw of her, show her with an expression of utter sadness. I imagine her having fallen between the gaps of tradition and emancipation, of female beauty and inner calling, living a life of comfortable social status but suffering her times’ restraints at the same time.
- Paula Moderson Becker (1876-1907): a German painter whose works I have known for decades, who dared to paint “against her training” in a raw looking, earthen and highly psychological expressive way, leaving academism for the influence of the fauves and committing her paintings to existential rural themes.
- Franz Joseph Stuck (1863-1928): for his seductive highly erotic paintings in a symbolist style, and more so for his undertaking to design his own house and studio as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk (now “Museum Villa Stuck”, Munich)
- Séraphine Louis, also known as Séraphine de Senlis (1864-1942): an art brut artist who developed her own practice from scratch (literally, involving even the production of her painting material), under very constrained economic and social circumstances, and who suffered institutionalization in her later years.
- Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972): for her role-modeling of a life of courage in her arts, love and life.
- Suzanne Valadon (1865 - 1938): for her determination to overcome her economical and social constraints, her commitment to her work against all odds, her double role as a model and a painter (she modelled also for J.J. Henner) and for choosing sexual pleasures as one of her main themes for her paintings.
- Georgia O’Keeffe (1887 -1986): who’s sensual paintings very probably inspired Sophie La Rosière’s watercolours of flowers and landscapes. And on a personal note: my visit at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe in 2013 confirmed my interest in how museums apply their authority to choreograph the perceptions of the artist-personalities and their legacies for their visitors.
- Gordon Matta Clark (1943-1978): whose treatment of dwellings I perceive as a break from the built structure into the imagined, thereby literally opening up occupied designed and purpose-foreseen spaces for reflection.
And my following peers:
- Judy Chicago
- Arnulf Rainer
- Pierre Soulages
- Ilya and Emilia Kabakov
- Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller
- Mike Nelson
- Mark Dion
- Michael Blum
- Rachel Whiteread
For the free-style re-construction of a psychoanalyst’s sofa: Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
Who is Sophie La Rosière? Interview with Iris Haeussler by Shelley Hornstein